In a recent conversation, I was asked about my why, the reason for my research, but mainly the context that I bring to it.
That got me thinking more deeply about ontology and how our individual ideologies impact and contextualise research.
To that end, I thought I’d share my own context. My research seeks to understand technological impacts on vulnerable South Sudanese in development programs mitigating gender risks.
“Identity powerfully shapes the aspirations and horizons of human lives.”
(Peacock, Thornton, & Inman, 2007)
Conflict and its causes are rarely as superficial as they may appear, fundamentally altering your perspective and outlook thereafter. Growing up in Northern Ireland through the tail end of ‘The Troubles’, I can recall many instances where identity was both the guise, and result, of sectarian conflict. You were ‘born into a side’ and wherever you place yourself on the spectrum within that side, your views, and those of family or community, are generally not neutral. For me, and for many others, this was just a way of life. I’ve travelled to many countries over the years, yet the only place I’ve been held point blank at gunpoint was in Belfast. Conflict in Northern Ireland reach such ‘efficiency’, if you will, that the city centre could be evacuated in about 15 mins from the point that a bomb alert siren wailed – that was generally the ‘etiquette’ for a window of time given from the point of tipoff to detonation on a viable device in the country, compared to an hour’s ‘grace’ in bombings conducted by Northern Irish paramilitaries in England. Aside from the initial panic, the overarching feeling, once safe, was a rather ‘normalising’ displeasure at the resultant traffic gridlock likely to ensue for hours thereafter. Anecdotally, at the height of tensions, it had been known to have had up to 20 bomb ‘scares’ a day, and no way of knowing which was a hoax, nor a willingness to find out first hand, so each had to be treated accordingly, as viable. For the Northern Irish, regardless of tribe, this was a normal way of life for several generations, and people had to adapt in their own ways – some more productive than others- to a new norm.
Politics and conflict (for the two often became interchangeable) was all I ever remember being on the television – news or otherwise – to the point they were quite trivialised by their frequency. Barriers were cultural, verbal, and physical. Ironically, there were actually more ‘peace walls’ and barricades fracturing the city after the Good Friday Agreement was brokered than before. Work to rebuild psychological trust between parties is still an ongoing and tentative process, and is required fundamentally at a grassroots behavioural level, before these physical barriers can be rescinded. There can be no doubting there are complexities sitting beyond the surface here, even if we struggle to agree on each one explicitly.
Moving to Australia a number of years ago afforded me sufficient time and distance from my own culture and heritage to enjoy a relative outsider’s perspective on the nuances of tribalism which inherently impacted my world view – despite my own resistance to acknowledge them at the time.
When I visited Uganda in 2014 to see a number of international development programs, our vehicle was searched at one of the military checkpoints. One soldier checked inside, and then under, the car for improvised explosive devices (IED’s) with a long stick and a rear view mirror tied on the end. I was quite excitedly nostalgic as this was something I had experienced at many army checkpoints growing up. I didn’t cognitively register how unusual my enthusiasm was at this reminiscence, until I looked at the surprised faces of my Australian counterparts. It was then I started consciously revisiting my own history, the associated identity impacts of conflict in my own context, and the tribal undercurrents which are inherited in this circumstance, with a different lens.
As, perhaps, somewhat more of a global citizen these days, my interest was piqued by conflict scenarios elsewhere, particularly those tribal and extended in nature. I became more aware and appreciative of the delicate nuances which often aren’t visible on the surface of these circumstances, and how they influence a context beyond one where ‘outsider logic’ (by that I mean examples such as “just stop fighting already, it’s within your power to make this end” kind of commentary) reigns, therefore potentially impacting the success or failure of well-meaning interventions.
It is with this lens that I approach my research.
Peacock, J. L., Thornton, P. M., & Inman, P. B. (2007). Identity Matters.